There is a small dance studio located on Eglinton West in Toronto. Tucked beneath a career recruitment centre, down a narrow stairway and through a heavy metal door is a mirrored room filled with nine brass poles descending from the ceiling, a collection of feathery boas, and a silver boom box. This is Aradia Fitness and I’m going to observe a pole dancing class.
A group of women settle in to the small changing area at Aradia Fitness. Mostly for functionality, the girls wear short shorts and tank tops, no dance shoes or socks. I learn the benefit of exposed skin – increased ability to “stick” to the pole. And if that doesn’t work, some girls apply a thin layer of Vaseline to their legs, which acts as an adhesive. I notice a collection of spray bottles and small towels around the perimeter of the studio. Soon each girl picks up a bottle (which I later learn is filled with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and water), sprays her pole and wipes it clean. Again, mostly for functionality, this concoction allows for a better pole grip.
The instructor, Sunni-Anne Ball (yes, that’s her real name) is a former wake board champion. She won the World Cup in Moscow in 2005, but retired from the sport five years ago due to injuries. Ball re-routed her life, attended university in Nova Scotia and picked up two degrees – a BSc in Kinesiology, and a BSc in Health Promotion. Two years ago, Ball attended her first pole dance class at Aradia Fitness on a quest to find something “physical and challenging.” A combination of strength and acrobatics, Ball stuck with pole dancing.
As I settle in to my observer chair in the corner of the studio and crack open my notebook, I begin to feel like a voyeur. Interestingly, no one seems to care about my gaze. The class is one hour long and offers a mix of strength training (dancers need to be able to support their body weight), muscle stretches to increase flexibility (because pointed toes and stretched legs are just as important as in a ballet class), musicality (moving around, up and down the pole in an interesting way), and then skill-based exercises like the brass monkey, archer and rainbow (take a look at this site to see what I’m talking about). The class ends with a free dance, lights are dimmed and loud music is played.
During the free dance I witness strength and skill – the ability to rotate around the pole in an inverted position, two feet from the floor, while in a perfect double stag, and then transition into a provocative straddle position isn’t easy, but looks effortless. This moment reminds me of my first email conversation with Aradia Fitness owner and dancer, Alishia Sala. Sala notes that pole dancing represents “beautiful contradictions in women” such as strength and vulnerability and that it is both “a technical sport and graceful art form.” Besides the pin-up girl poses, elements of tease and acrobatics, this choreographic improvisation is far more complex than a sexy free dance in a basement studio.
At the conclusion of the free dance, I chat with a few girls. Mostly, I am curious as to why there is an interest in pole dancing. From the “I always wanted to try it out” to words like “empowerment” and “embodiment,” these girls tell me stories about how it feels to pole dance, why it is a way to maintain a positive body image, and how it gives them a level of confidence they never thought attainable. It seems the pole, long hated by many feminists, is being re-appropriated by women as a powerful symbol.
Aradia Fitness is located at 1174 Eglinton Avenue West and offers classes from beginner to advanced levels. There is also a “teaser” only offered once a month as a trial class to get a taste of pole dancing. No dance or fitness experience is required, just a pair of short-shorts.